Opposing Views: Historicity of Jesus

Following are two opposing views on the historicity (historical actuality) of Jesus. What do you think?

“Most moderates would probably conclude that no secure biography of Jesus can be written. But not even the extremists would permit this circumstance to lead to a denial that Jesus is a historical character. In the 1910’s a few scholars did argue that Jesus never existed and was simply the figment of speculative imagination. This denial of the historicity of Jesus does not commend itself to scholars, moderates or extremists, any more. On the basis of simple human experience, it seems to most scholars more likely that a historical personality was elevated into divine rank, than that a speculative abstraction was turned into some fictitious person. To believe the latter would raise the problem of why a Jew, of Galilean origin, would have been hit upon as the fictitious embodiment of a divine being. Why not a Roman, of noble birth, of great education and wealth? The obscurity and humbleness of the background of Jesus, preserved by the church even in the face of its deification of him, form a compelling argument that he was a historical character.

While the liberal scholar will concede that some, or much, or even most, of the data which the New Testament reports about Jesus is unhistorical, he concludes that to deny his historicity entirely is neither necessary nor reasonable. It seems perfectly natural that behind the accrued beliefs there was a historical person; and the burden of proving a case would today seem to fall upon those who would deny that Jesus ever existed, not upon those who affirm it. Indeed, when resort is made to tolerably reasonable proofs, the weight seems in the direction of affirming that Jesus lived, even though Jewish and Roman sources of his day fail to mention him. The mention of a mother and of brothers and sisters of Jesus in the Gospels, and the mention of James in Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, are understandable only as genuine historical reminiscences, but not as possible by-products of speculation, since their very nature would tend to be refuted by the speculative deification. In short, the New Testament has so many overtones about Jesus which point to a historical person that it is excessive skepticism to doubt the direct statement that he was a historical person who was born, lived, and died. The “Christ-myth” theories are not accepted or even discussed by scholars today.”
(Rabbi Samuel Sandmel–A Jewish Understanding of the New Testament, pp. 196-197)

“Most scholars have gone on blithely assuming that there was a single Jesus of Nazareth, some sort of prophet and reformer, who was crucified, after which his followers experienced some sort of visions of Jesus as if risen from the dead. Only then, we are told, did the diversity begin, as various people interpreted and symbolized Jesus and his exaltation in terms appropriate to their own cultures.

And yet there were clues that there could have been no primordial zone of oneness even this far behind the scenes. For instance, the current crop of critical lives of Jesus present us with an embarrassment of riches. There are too many plausible portraits, each centering on a different selection of gospel data. None is particularly far-fetched, but neither are they easily compatible. Thus we have the same sort of range of evidence for Jesus that led F.C. Baur and Walter Bauer to deny a single, monochrome early Christianity. In some sense, then, we must reckon with several different Jesuses.

The gospels’ Jesuses are each complex syntheses of various other, earlier, Jesus characters. Some of these may have been reflections of various messianic prophets and revolutionaries, others the fictive counterparts of itinerant charismatics, and still others historicizations of mythical Corn Kings and Gnostic Aions. I think it is an open question whether a historical Jesus had anything to do with any of these Jesuses, much less the Jesuses of the gospels. Each is the figurehead, the totem, of a particular kind of Jesus community or Christ cult, and we will never know whether and to what extent each community reflects a remembered Jesus opposed to a Jesus or Christ who is a concretization of its own beliefs and values.”
(Robert M. Price–Deconstructing Jesus, pp. 265-266)


2 Responses to “Opposing Views: Historicity of Jesus”

  1. JAMZ DRUMZ Says:

    Hmmm, if I had to take a snapshot of my ongoing study of this subject, I would go with the notion that there were; plausibly, many Jesus characters of the day, but the ever pressing issue of monotheisim demanded that there be a unification of many Jesus’ to just one Jesus.
    This would account for the inconsistencies in the story line, and historical data, while suppressing polytheisim at the same time.
    Hell, I don’t really have enough research on the subject to be sure about this, but that’s my off the cuff theory.

  2. That would certainly put you in Price’s camp, JAMZ. Price contends that Jesus Christ is a literary conflation of both mythic and historical figures–the kind of thing that would’ve inevitably resulted from syncretistic trends in that day. Behind the Jesus Christ of the New Testament lies a whole host of character ingredients–would-be messiahs, Jewish martyrs and prophets, dying and rising gods, Gnostic redeemers, Hellenistic heroes, etc. I find myself more and more convinced of this idea. Interesting enough, there is some overlap between what Price and Sandmel are saying; Price just doesn’t see the need to pinpoint a singular, historical figure as Sandmel does.

    I like the way Dan Barker put it in his book ‘godless’:

    “Some skeptics think that Jesus never existed at all and that the myth came into being through a literary process. Other skeptics deny that the Jesus character portrayed in the New Testament existed, but feel that there could have been a first-century personality [or multiple personalities from that era] after whom the exaggerated myth was patterned. Others believe that Jesus did exist, and that some parts of the New Testament are accurate, although the miracles and the claim to deity are due to later editing of the original story. Still others claim that the New Testament is basically true in all of its accounts except that there are natural explanations for the miracle stories.”

    I would opt for the second option, allowing for Price’s insight:

    “Other skeptics deny that the Jesus character portrayed in the New Testament existed, but feel that there could have been [various personalities from that period] after whom the exaggerated myth was patterned.”

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